Chinese shamanic drum treatment

07 July 2023 | Long read
CT Holman
Acupuncturist: Oregon, US
In this brief introduction to one of the oldest forms of healing, CT Holman explains how incorporating drumming in the modern-day clinic can add to treatment by aligning patients with their higher consciousness and the universal qi.

The universe consists of various vibrations which can be transmitted through drumming. Indigenous cultures worldwide have found great healing power in the drum, utilising it in numerous ways from personally connecting to the spirit realm, to transforming disease.

Chinese shamans have tapped into the drum’s transformative potential for thousands of years. Drumbeats enable trance-like states for shamans to connect with the spirit world and affect physiological change in themselves and in their patients.

Shamanic journey beat

Drumming can be used in conjunction with acupuncture to enhance healing. The needles serve as antennas and resonate with the vibrations from the drum which helps to stimulate the acupuncture point and channel. One method of utilising drumming with acupuncture is to hold a frame hoop drum over the patient – once the needles have been placed – and begin playing a steady ‘shamanic journey beat’.

Here is the shamanic journey beat with guidance:

The shamanic journey beat is steady quarter notes played at around 150 beats per minute with gentle strokes, so as not to overwhelm the patient.

Hearing this rhythm often induces a trance-like state by stimulating theta brain wave production – bringing the patient back to their time in the womb since the beat emulates the heartbeat of the mother. This womb memory allows the patient to feel safe, held, and protected, which serves to settle their qi and drop them into a deeper state of relaxation.

The beat is typically played for three to five minutes. While drumming, the practitioner slowly moves the drum over the body from the head to the feet and then back again several times. Areas in the body with blockages or deficiencies can be focused on by holding the drum over the area for a minute or two.

The speed and intensity of the drumbeat varies based on the practitioner’s diagnosis. For deficient patients, a gentle, slower beat is recommended. However, if the patient’s constitution is strong and their disease pattern is due to excess, a slightly faster, vigorous beat is recommended.

Once the practitioner has finished playing the shamanic journey beat over the patient, they can let the patient rest for 30 to 45 minutes.

Before removing the needles, a steady beat of seven strokes is played starting at the head and ending at the lower abdomen. Repeat this beat but begin at the lower abdomen and end at the head. Then, one more round from the head to the lower abdomen. This grounds the patient and helps to align yin, yang and the five elements. Once the three rounds are complete, the needles can be removed.

Five element rhythms

In addition to the shamanic journey beat, there are rhythms for each of the five elements. The practitioner can intersperse these rhythms with the shamanic journey beat to focus on specific organs and or channels.

In my own practice I use five element beats based on my studies with Toby Christensen. Toby and his teacher, Malidoma Patrice Some from the Dagara nation, developed five element rhythms based on the intricate and multilevel beats from the Dagara nation located in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

These basic rhythms were created for westerners to use for healing. And since the five element medicine wheel of the Dagara nation is practically identical to the East Asian symbology, the same rhythms can be applied to the East Asian five elements. There are only two minor differences based on the middle and little fingers representing opposing organs, and the Dagara nation believes life begins with fire as opposed to water in East Asian philosophy. Therefore, these rhythms effectively activate organs and channels based on an East Asian medical diagnosis.

Once their diagnosis is determined, the most appropriate of the five element rhythms is played over the patient. To focus the attention on the desired organ system, the practitioner can hold the drum over the organ while playing the five element rhythm which enhances the resonance of the beat.

Many times, the patient feels the invigoration of the organ being treated and senses the channel associated with the organ. Energising the organ system with the specific five element beat works synergistically with acupuncture, thus increasing the effectiveness of treatment.

The drum serves as a powerful vehicle for the practitioner’s intent. Thus, it is important for the practitioner to maintain a clear intention of treatment to assure a positive outcome which relies on an accurate diagnosis. The more focused the diagnosis, the more coherent the message to the body, mind, and spirit of the patient.

Guiding universal qi

Drumming taps into the mystical realm and allows the practitioner to guide universal qi healing to the patient. If the message is clear, the universal qi assiduously treats the disease pattern. And because all beings are influenced by changes in the cosmos, a five element rhythm can also be selected based on the season.

Observing the flow of the universe is a key tenet of ancient Chinese medicine. Practitioners of the ancient East Asian wisdom traditions recognise the fluctuations of the universe and cultivate qi based on the changes during the day, the cycles of the moon, the seasons and the 12-year cycle. Their self-cultivation practices follow this flow to harmonise with the universal qi and optimise their ability to increase shenming – spiritual brightness. They teach their patients about the flow of the universe and design their treatments based on the universal changes to increase ling – magic of the universe.

Modern-day practitioners can apply this ancient Chinese wisdom to create harmony with the universe and establish a healthy internal environment. One way of using heavenly stems and earthly branches in the modern Chinese medicine clinic is to play the drum rhythm associated with the current season.

Historically, stems and branches played a significant role in medicine. In the Warring States period, healers were required to have knowledge of the stems and branches and were to apply it to the treatment of the network of channels in the body.

In the Huangdi Neijing – Inner Cannon of the Yellow Emperor – knowledge of the cosmological cycles was used to treat diseases based on the cadence of nature. The application of this information allowed physicians to diagnose, prognose and treat illness at a deeper level. Sun Si Miao, ‘the King of Medicine’, based his treatments on the cosmological cycles. And in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) stems and branches were not only used in medicine but served as a main part of technical literature.

Shifting energy

In the body, as the energy shifts with each cycle, so does the amount of energy in the organs and channels: treatment strategies must be designed based on these fluctuations. The heavenly stems and earthly branches provide a means by which to differentiate the physiological changes in the body; the five element beats sync the body with universal qi.

Drumming over patients complements acupuncture treatment in several ways. The resonance of the drum stimulates the needles and unifies the body with the seasonal qi flow – it also propels qi, activates the lymph system to rid the body of toxins, stimulates the brain, strengthens the immune system, and improves the cardiovascular system.

Several research studies confirm the benefits of the drum in treating a variety of medical conditions from cardiovascular disease, attention deficit disorder, Parkinson’s disease, compromised immunity, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Acupuncture can be used to treat emotional trauma and post traumatic stress disorder. Adding drumming to the treatment settles the patient, connects them to Mother Earth – which provides a feeling of self-love – and centres their energy.

Here is the earth rhythm with guidance.


When treating these conditions, it is best to perform the shamanic drumbeat with a slightly slower pace and softer volume to avoid scattering the patient’s energy. Often the earth element drumbeat is added to accentuate the connection to Mother Earth, as described below. I find this combination potent in my own practice.

Case study

The following case study describes the use of drum healing to stabilise a woman who experienced intense emotional trauma.

85-year-old ‘Sasha’ had been receiving monthly treatments to maintain her health and called to come in sooner, due to a severe emotional trauma. She reported that her husband had been killed in a car accident one week earlier, and she was experiencing great sadness and acute insomnia. They had been married for over 50 years and the blow of her husband’s sudden death was intense. She was sleeping minimal hours and was disoriented. Her stomach was upset and she had intestinal cramping.

Surrounded by tremendous family support, she felt love amongst the devastation. She was legally blind and her husband had been her source of transportation and way to engage with the world through volunteering at their church’s ‘meals on wheels’ programme. He had been a wonderful companion and they had frequently gone out to dinner and visited friends. Besides grieving her husband, she was faced with a great fear of how she would now get around and interact with the community. She felt let down by life and was feeling a sense of hopelessness.

Her diagnosis was Scattered Qi. Treatment focused on gathering the qi and grounding the shen. The acupuncture treatment Gathering The Qi was used in conjunction with the shamanic journey drumbeat. The drumming was performed gently and focused on her chest and abdominal areas.

Hendrik Kappen, a fellow acupuncturist visiting from Germany, was observing in the clinic. Once the drumming commenced, Kappen reported noticing an incredible softening and relaxing of her shen. He explained that Sasha’s energy field had become significantly peaceful and grounded. The closing seven beats were played and the patient was prescribed Gan Mai Da Zao Tang – licorice, wheat, and jujube decoction – modified.

It brought her shen to the present moment

Four days later Sasha returned and stated she had slept well the first two nights after treatment. Her stomach-ache had reduced and her energy was improving.  Weekly acupuncture and drumming treatments continued for a month.

Sasha recovered and continued to be an active member in the community. A year after the accident, she was still volunteering, going out to dinner with friends, and still sporting her sparkling smile.

The shamanic drumming helped Sasha connect and settle – it brought her shen to the present moment. At her age, this trauma could have been devastating and resulted in a severe decline in health. Chinese medicine stepped up and brought her energy back to centre. The drum played an incredible role in helping Sasha regain her energy and spirit.

Indigenous peoples all over the planet have utilised the resonance of the drum to connect with the spiritual realm, to heal themselves, and to treat others. As our collective consciousness continues to tune into the rhythmic flow of the cosmos, the drum provides a way to ride the wave of qi to lift our spirits and transform limitations.

CT Holman is a clinician with over 20 years of practice. He teaches internationally and is the author of two textbooks – Treating Emotional Trauma With Chinese Medicine, published by Singing Dragon – from which the case study above is taken – and Shamanism In Chinese Medicine. To emphasise the effectiveness of music in medical treatments, he recorded and produced a CD/MP3 entitled Resonating Vitality: Chinese Medicine Drum Treatments.

CT trained in China three times, teaches at the Oregon College of Chinese Medicine for its doctoral programme, is Director of Development for the Lotus Institute of Lillian Bridges, conducts a mentoring programme, and has several video courses available on his website

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